Adam Holloway: An end to steely-eyed killing machines

The old Bush/Blair mantras obscured a grim reality – we created the insurgency and cannot reduce it by sending in more troops

Sunday 21 February 2010 01:00

"Strategic failure" is no longer a mere possibility in Afghanistan: it is the likely outcome. Last week's launch of "Operation Moshtarak" in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, is an allegory for so much that has gone wrong with Nato's deployment.

The word means "togetherness" in Dari, the language of Afghan northern ethnic groups. The people in the south mostly speak Pashto; and to the deeply traditional people in the southern rural areas, Dari speakers are outsiders, as are the tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers overridingly from northern ethnic groups who range, with us, across the territory. What we call the Taliban have mostly melted back into the population.

It is almost as if the international community has come to resemble a sort of self-licking lollipop – a multi-trillion-dollar machine that feeds only on itself; an alien confection that works against, not with, the grain of Afghan society. The old Bush-era mantras remain, and steely-eyed killing machines obscure steely realism.

What we call the Taliban are, in fact, hundreds of groups, most of whom are no more than traditional Afghan Muslims, the sons of local farmers. The same was true when I spent time in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but then I travelled with what we called "the resistance". Now, as then, they are united not by Islam but by the presence of foreign troops on their soil, and a hatred of external governments. Deadly ideological extremists are the smaller but growing part. Approximately 80 per cent of those we call the enemy die within 20 miles of where they live: does that tell you something about who we are really fighting?

When I rather cautiously walked round Helmand's main town in 2006, there was no insurgency. Last year, I did the same, but I will not take the risk again. We have built an insurgency against ourselves and the Afghan state, one that we can never hope to defeat completely – it is simply too late. By focusing on Iraq after the brilliantly executed invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, we ignored a huge reservoir of local goodwill that would have enabled the country's development; instead, our continued military presence has fuelled insurgency. If we get things right now, we might just be able to get back to the conditions that prevailed before the arrival in force of foreign troops in 2006, a situation that might be managed in the long term.

However, we will achieve this only by separating ordinary people and non-ideological fighters from the hardcore Taliban. There are four main components to this.

First, the Karsai government has taken the West for a ride. We must communicate to President Karzai that unless he gets a tolerably functioning technocratic government in place it will be replaced, by any legal means, by a government of national unity. We cannot prop up crooks. And the Afghan people are not stupid. A credible, central negotiating partner for Taliban groups to talk to is crucial for successful deal-making with insurgent Pashtun areas. Neither Karzai nor the brother he has appointed to undertake this work are that.

General McChrystal and his people talk a lot about "reintegration", which essentially means forcing, or encouraging, people to come back to the side of the Afghan government. This is different from the second key point, which is "reconciliation". Like it or not, the Afghans we have been fighting – virtually all of them – have a place in Afghanistan's future. Making deals with tribes, sub-tribes, villages and networks, even up to the gates of wherever Mullah Omar now hides, would involve football-pitch-sized hangars full of analysts and Afghans examining provinces right down to district and village levels, mapping personalities and motivations, tracking and listening to calls, abstractly to the point of who smiles at whom – in order to understand who controls and wants what.

Then we would need credible negotiators to talk to them. I have not been able to pick up whether this is being done in the sort of order needed: certainly, some of the true experts in the field are not being used. Perhaps it is too difficult politically, given our relationship with Hamid Karsai, so we are allowing him to use his own people to his own purposes. But he is untrustworthy, so this will not work. If we could do this properly, we could separate a large part of the insurgency from the leadership in Pakistan.

Third, Pakistan is the heart of the insurgency. Whatever the political class there tells us, elements of the the country's Inter-Services Intelligence agency would prefer chaos in Afghanistan, or a Taliban government, than an Afghan government such as Karsai's that is pro-India. They see everything through the prism of a future war with India and the danger of having a pro-India country on their western border. Unless gigantic pressure is put on India and Pakistan to move towards resolving their differences, the Taliban leadership in Pakistan will remain physically comfortable, in command, communicating, and able to wait out the collapse of public opinion in the West without any pressure to make a deal.

So, finally, we are left with what we are told is the solution to our problem, our "exit strategy" – strong Afghan national security forces and yet more Nato "military operations". It sounds great on the floor of the House of Commons, and even hardened BBC correspondents can be heard parroting the line.

Alas, what this really means is a large army mainly composed of Afghans from the northern Tajik ethnic group replacing us in the south and the east. Such an army may not be foreign, but these people are complete outsiders to the ethnically Pashtun villagers. Heaven knows what the this-week-"liberated" people of Marjah make of the new arrivals – Afghan and British – in their town in Helmand. This is like an insurgency in Wales, in which a Scottish army with some Welsh officers impose the will of a British prime minister who comes from a gangster family.

But mostly what we hear about is the surge of troop numbers, as if this is the final answer. Some weeks ago, I asked a former friend of both Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar if more troops really were the answer: "More casualties, more economical cost to you – which is what Osama wants, more disorganisation in your chain of command, so more Afghan casualties, more reaction from the population, more perception of occupation, and, anyway, more will never be enough."

There is no perfect answer. Rather, it is about reducing the insurgency to a manageable level, and that is done by local politics not big armies, ours or theirs. In Afghanistan and across the Muslim world, the challenge is to separate populations from extremists: since 9/11 we have only made our problem worse. It is time to move beyond the Bush/Blair years if we are serious about protecting our populations from terror.

Adam Holloway, a former soldier and reporter, is a Conservative MP and member of the Defence Select Committee. His report, Towards Realism in Afghanistan, is on

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